Mark Wallach: When it comes to Boulder government, ‘slower is smarter’

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Mark Wallach, retired developer and city council candidate

Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019 (Updated Oct. 13, 2019)

Mark Wallach knows the value of going slow. A former real estate developer, he focused on adaptive reuse of mostly 18th- and 19th-century buildings into multi-family residences. Though it was development, Wallach said in practice it was “more like architecture than construction.”

“I’ve never had to demolish a building in my life,” he said. “We always worked in landmarked districts.”

Wallach is running on his background as a developer. It gives him an edge, he believes, in a Boulder government that dedicates a huge portion of its time to matters of land use, growth and development.

I understand the “economics of development,” he said. “So if somebody makes a proposal to do X,Y, Z, I think I have a sense of is that financially feasible? Are the cost projections real? I can talk to developers, too. I was in the club; I know the secret handshake.”

That sense of reality needs to extend to the general populace as well, Wallach believes. 

“The big thing in town for everybody is affordable housing, (but) I’m not sure there’s a good recognition of just how difficult that is,” he said. “Everybody wants it; nobody wants it near them. Balancing those factors to come up with good solutions that are at least respectful of communities if not always responsive to everything a community wants, I think, is important.”

A transplant from New York City, Wallach cut his teeth in the political world by helping a friend run for office in Long Island in the days of mimeograph machines and reverse phone directories. He’s had some involvement in Boulder’s political scene as well, appearing before council at least once to speak about affordable housing linkage fees.

He’s also written extensively in the Daily Camera, submitting more than half a dozen letters and op-eds (see below). He and councilman Bob Yates are close friends; they endorsed one another and co-authored a decency pledge that all city council candidates signed promising not to say “disparaging or untrue things” about fellow candidates and to discourage their supporters from doing the same.

“We have to detoxify the debate,” Wallach said. “Passion is fine, (but) all of these debates have become almost criminalized. I think all of us in our lifetime have seen enough issues that require hysterical, passionate responses.” Housing and land use aren’t among them. 

“I don’t view it as a moral question. They’re just housing transactions.”

The contentious debate over accessory dwelling units is a good example, he said, of where slow-growth advocates were a bit too hair-on-fire.

“(City council) made, I think, reasonable accommodations to loosen things up and see what happens. And so far, to my knowledge, the sky has not fallen. Sometimes I think it’s OK to try things as an experiment. A couple years from now, if the sky still hasn’t fallen, maybe it will be time to loosen it some more.”

Yet he was as outspoken as many anti-ADU residents when it came to liberalizing the city’s co-operative housing rules. In a late 2016 letter to the editor, he characterized a co-op advocate as simply wanting free rent; another letter published earlier in the year claimed all co-op residents were “transients” with no real roots in the community, whose presence would lower property values for their home-owning neighbors. He claimed the supportive city council was “determined to inflict maximum pain” on residents in low-density neighborhoods by allowing co-ops there (among other decisions). In other letters, he compared pro-density advocates to wolves in sheep’s clothing and war criminals

These days, Wallach takes a softer tone. He has changed his rhetoric because his approach as a private citizen is not appropriate for an elected official. 

“I won’t say I don’t have that edge on occasion, but the roles are different,” he said. “You have to express yourself differently, and I believe I can do that.”

Younger, more pro-density residents “aren’t all entitled millennials,” he said, “they’re people who want a home.” Single-family homeowners aren’t “white racists” — though such zoning does have explicit roots in racism, something Wallach won’t admit. Indeed, his response to a question about the historically racist nature of single-family zoning is to say the debate over land use is “too emotional, accusatory and a little abusive.”

“Bringing people around to different ways of living is a slow, arduous process,” he said. “We have too much name-calling if we don’t like the way the other guy is living. We should do better than that. The dehumanization is counter-productive.” 

That doesn’t mean giving various neighborhood groups everything they want. At Alpine-Balsam, for instance, Wallach thinks dense development makes sense. (On the city-owned site only; he was pleased council punted larger land use changes for the surrounding areas as neighbors requested.)

What doesn’t make sense, as least through his preservationist-developer lens, is tearing down the former hospital. Staff analysis on reuse and embodied carbon emissions concluded that demolition was the cheaper and more environmentally friendly route; a majority of council agreed with that assessment, albeit reluctantly.

Wallach said he’d like to see hear the same conclusions from “12 consultants” before trusting that outcome as fact. When pressed about the hyperbole, he backed down a bit but stuck to his original premise.

“I find it hard to believe there aren’t a bunch of developers who would come up with some very creative uses for the building,” he said. “Cast a wider net; go out with a (competitive bidding process). I want a bunch of people telling me this is nonsense, you can’t repurpose this building.”

That kind of prolonged city process often drives frustration among some residents, who see leaders as stuck in an endless cycle of studies and questions often referred to by critics as “analysis paralysis.” 

But to Wallach, it is the right approach. When it comes to Boulder’s built environment, decisions made today dictate what will be around for decades.

Alpine-Balsam is “a community asset we have to be happy with for the next 30-40 years,” he said. “I think it’s appropriate” to take our time. “Some decisions, like the moratorium on the opportunity zone, were done quickly and I think correctly. I go at the pace I think is appropriate.

“Sometimes I think moving a little slower is a little smarter.” 

Who he says he represents: “I would like to represent everybody, acknowledging that those interested are going to be in conflict.”

Endorsed by: PLAN-Boulder County, Together4Boulder, Boulder Area Labor Council, Indian Peaks Sierra Club, (Not an endorsement, but Wallach received 100% on the Planned Parenthood questionnaire)

Campaign filings: 14 days before election

Priorities: Open space, smart growth, municipalization, sub-community planning, affordable housing, transportation

Relevant op-eds: “Co-ops won’t solve affordability crisis” (May 2016)

City council gone wild” (June 2016)

Boulder housing: law enforcement optional” (August 2016)

Welcome to the club” (December 2016)

The end of the movie” (January 2017)

Change the housing conversation” (May 2017)

Demand specifics, not platitudes, from council candidates” (July 2017)

Unity must be earned” (October 2017)

Singin’ that same old pro-development song” (April 2018)

Opportunity zone not meant for city like Boulder” (December 2018)

What advocates of density don’t tell you” (February 2019)

Don’t mistake careful growth for reactionary governance” (April 2019)

Move past the tired rhetoric on affordable housing” (June 2019)

Why you might want to vote for him: Wallach is incredibly well-informed and thoughtful. While he certainly has his values and hard lines in the sand, on most issues, he carefully considers multiple perspectives based on reality rather than dogma (See: Hill hotel and prairie dogs, for instance, and to some degree, neighborhood input on development). 

His growth policies are where Wallach is most comfortable ignoring arguments and data that don’t jibe with his views, but even here, his positions are more rooted in reality than wishful thinking (See: his thoughts on market-rate housing). He responds well when faced with criticism and engages deeply. 

He also was more comfortable discussing the city budget than most other candidates. Though he didn’t have any particularly relavatory policy ideas, he was more willing than most to ask hard questions about the city’s debt practices and acknowledge that, in times of flatlining revenue, we can’t fund everything. He was even willing to get (slightly) specific about what he would cut — a bold move for a candidate trying to woo voters.

Why you might not want to vote for him: However balanced his approach to other issues, Wallach is prone to hyperbole when it comes to issues of growth and development. He backs off when called on making claims not based in fact, but it’s something to watch.

He also tends to be dismissive of people who disagree with him on divisive issues. Regarding CU South, he criticized the South Boulder Creek Action Group for their organizing efforts.

“Do I want flood mitigation? Yes, I do. Do I want to protect the people of Frasier Meadows? Yes, I do. I’d like them to stop wearing their little T-shirts at every meeting. It’s not contributing to the public discourse.”

When asked whether another neighborhood group (one more aligned with Wallach’s views) should discontinue color-coordinating their clothing, he said, “Yeah, probably. It doesn’t help.”

Citizen advocacy and participation in local government is a constitutional right. While it is incumbent upon residents of all stripes to act in good faith and with due respect, elected officials should not discourage or dismiss political expression — especially when the expression of those rights is as benign as wearing matching clothes. 

Wallach views himself as an equal-opportunity critic, one who can accurately assess “both sides” and try to find a middle ground. 

“It’s not like there’s a side of virtue and a side of evil,” he said. “I’d like to be a consensus builder within the framework of the values I think are important.”

Wallach on the issues

Housing: Wallach does have a bit of a “there’s not much we can do” attitude to housing affordability in Boulder. “I’m not sure we’re going to solve a problem that is national in scope,” he said. “You can build affordable housing in Telluride, but it’s never going to be an affordable town. It’s like sticking your finger in the dike and saying ‘I’m holding it back.’”

Nonetheless, there are a few things he thinks we should do. His approach would be to build in specific places — along the 30th Street and Arapahoe corridors, for instance, or at the county site on Broadway and Iris — away from neighborhoods with the fiercest opposition to new housing. The airport should be redeveloped into a 1,200-1,500-unit mixed-use community. All sizeable new developments need to have a mix of subsidized and market-rate housing.

“We’re not going to stop market-rate housing,” he said. “It’s not a socially feasible or even desirable thing.”

Any city-owned sites, like Alpine-Balsam, need to have “a reasonable degree of density” and few if any single-family homes. Otherwise, though, he’s not a big believer in density when it comes to larger land-use changes, as some have suggested. (At least 65% of Boulder’s residential land is reserved for single-family homes, by square footage.)

“I’m not so presumptuous as to tell everybody else (what type of homes)  they ought to live in,” Wallach said. “It’s not one-size-fits-all. We have to have room for people to live different lifestyles.”

He would like to devote more resources to mobile home parks, where residents face threats of eviction, poor water quality and escalating costs. He toured Vista Village with residents and called the experience “instructive.”

“When I met with them, I was half ready to get out of the race,” he said. “I walked out of that meeting, and I got it. All these people wanted was a little bit of help so they can live a nice life. I don’t know what I can do, but at least now I understand the point of public service.”

Wallach is a fan of measures such as rent control that Boulder would need state-level action to implement. He’d like to see CU provide housing for sophomores on campus as well, something else out of the city’s purview.

Locally, he said, the cash-in-lieu fee needs to be raised to incentivize on-site housing (no on-site affordable rentals have been built in the 18 years since the start of the city’s inclusionary housing program). And it’s time for an affordable housing tax.

“I know full well it might not be approved,” Wallach said. “I don’t mind challenging the community and saying, ‘This is what you all say you want.’ At some point, you either walk the walk or you don’t.”

Homelessness: Wallach would “do everything I can” to keep the funding levels stable for homeless service providers such as Bridge House and organizations working to keep people in housing, like Emergency Family Assistance Association. He’d like to give more money to homeless services “if I had my druthers” but thinks that is unlikely given current budget constraints.

CU south/flood mitigation: Wallach is critical of the university’s approach to negotiations. “I’m not even entirely unsympathetic to CU. I understand they have certain needs,” he said. But the university “has not been the most cooperative partner in the world.” 

For instance, he said, they haven’t considered a land swap, in which the city would give CU acreage to develop elsewhere. (Where, exactly, Wallach doesn’t say.)

Wallach is also critical of staff. Since 2015, every design for flood protection was predicated on the belief that CDOT would allow the city to use its right of way, which earlier this year turned out not to be true.

“I don’t like to beat up on staff, but that was not their finest moment,” he said. “They need some help” in negotiating, help that council should provide to “get some sort of restart on these negotiations.”

He is a bit critical of south Boulder residents who have been vocal in urging quick action.

“You’ve got the Frasier Meadows people jumping up and down and saying, ‘It’s going to happen tomorrow; I need a dam tomorrow.’ I understand the impatience, I get the urgency. I would say to the community, you’re not going to have your dam this year, you’re not going to have it next year. It’s going to be a fairly drawn-out process.”

Budget: Wallach takes a much dimmer view of the city’s finances than staff, council or any of the candidates. 

“The number of unfunded obligations or necessities we have are $300 million-plus. We’ve got $220 million of long-term debt. Revenues are flat; revenues may yet decline,” Wallach said. “At some point, there are going to be difficult choices, and nobody is going to like them.”

It will take a deep look into each department — and a thoughtful, birds-eye look at city finances as a whole — to determine what gets cut and what gets funded, Wallach said. One place that’s worthy of funding without a deep dive, he believes, is open space. He is a big supporter of advancing the sales tax extension to voters to fund a “well-documented” $40 million maintenance backlog

“I don’t think you can underestimate the significance of Boulder’s open space, not just for our psyche, but we have a tourist industry. Why are they coming? They’re not coming for the 29th Street Mall. They’re coming for the hiking and the climbing and the tri-athleting and the biking. If you want to have a healthy tourist economy, you need to have good open space. Because (if we) don’t preserve that, we’re just another town of 100,000 sitting out in the middle of the country.”

Open space should stop acquiring, he thinks. (The department has revved down its buying program but still has a handful of acquisitions in the pipeline.) 

When asked what might be low on his priority list, Wallach said it would vary. Maybe this year, the library, next year, the arts. Our funding for arts and culture is abysmal, he said, and he wants to give them more money. But the fact is, we just might not have it. 

“People are going to have to hunker down a little bit. We’re going to have to bob and weave a little bit because we don’t have, at least in this climate, an ever-increasing source of revenue. If the pendulum swings and sales tax increase, then we can have a more robust budget.”

Police oversight: “I’m fine with it. There was a specific incident that mandated we take action, and I’m glad we did. I think we need to have a little more focus on training of our police force. To me, that was a pure failure of training. It doesn’t mean we don’t have members of the police force who have racial prejudice. That’s part of the training. Either you get rid of it or we get rid of you. I’m not hostile to our police force. I never am.” 

Attended March for Police Oversight: No

Attended city council listening session on racism: No

Lethal control of prairie dogs: Wallach is supportive of exploring this option as a last resort. “I don’t want to do this because it’s easy; I want to do this because we’ve run out of other options.” He also shows his characteristic consideration of both sides.

“I want to go the last mile to make sure it’s not something we have to do,” he said. “I’m also a little reluctant to put farmers out of business. They signed leases in good faith.”

Hill hotel: Wallach did not take a “firm” position on this issue. As long as public monies aren’t spent for “private benefit,” he’s generally OK with the project though skeptical it will have the positive effects on revitalization of the Hill that people hope it will (and a council-commissioned report said it would).

“I think people may be disappointed,” he said. “I’m not sure they’re going to get what they expect.” But “I’m not opposed (to it) because it’s private money on a piece of private property. If they’re not asking for city subsidy, then it’s kind of up to them.”

Muni: Wallach is staunchly in favor of municipalization, which he believes will make a bigger dent in Boulder’s greenhouse gas emissions than anything else. 

“If we don’t like the muni, we ought to rescind our 2030 climate goals, because we can’t possibly get there without the muni,” he said. “If you really want to rely on a promise from Xcel that they’ll convert to renewables in 30 years, then I suggest we take a ride to Denver on our imaginary rail system. These things change; if it gets too expensive for them, they will say, well, we gave it a shot but we couldn’t do it. Where will we be then?”

Wallach isn’t an “at-all-costs” supporter: He wouldn’t want to defund other city departments to subsidize operation of the utility. But at the end of the day, it’s up to the voters to decide how much is too much.

This is a complete 180 from where Wallach was in 2016, when he penned an op-ed for the Daily Camera criticizing decisions of city council:

“More than $10 million has been squandered in pursuing the chimera of an independent municipal utility company, apparently on the theory that if the end is a good one, it must be practical and achievable,” Wallach wrote. “Now that discussions are underway to settle the dispute with Xcel, one can already envision the self-congratulatory press releases claiming that whatever minuscule benefits have been wrung from Xcel were well worth the expense in money and effort. The reality is that they will be wiping egg from their faces and telling us it is really an omelet. And don’t lose sleep waiting for the tax refund.”

That piece was written at a time when “I really had very little knowledge of the situation in Colorado with respect to energy,” Wallach said in a follow-up interview. Once he learned how fossil fuel-dependent the state was, he changed his mind about the muni.

Occupancy limits: Wallach “hasn’t really thought about” this as an issue. He wouldn’t get rid of them entirely but has no answer for if or how they should be changed.

Council’s use of moratoria: Wallach is comfortable with governance by moratoria. “In some cases, a moratorium can be useful,” he said.

Opportunity zone: This moratorium has been “justified” by the types of projects we’ve seen nationally utilizing the program, Wallach said (ultra-wealthy investors building low-risk projects in well-to-do places, though Wallach admits “there may be a couple of good projects in there”). 

“To me, it’s a perversion of a project that could have done a lot of social good,” he said. If the development and demolition ban wasn’t in place, “I’m pretty sure we’d be seeing applications that would not be very good for Boulder.”

Height limit: Wallach thinks it is appropriate to have this moratorium in place until the community benefit project is complete to determine what the city will “get” in exchange for allowing developers to build up to the 55-foot citywide height limit.

“I have a very narrow view of community benefit,” Wallach said. “You have a crisis; do things that help with your crisis. For me, it’s housing. And maybe affordable commercial. As somebody who has been a developer, I will tell you if you give developers a laundry list of 11 things they can do, they will pick the ones that are cheapest and you will end up with a Dixieland jazz band playing three times a week in a public plaza, for which they will get extra height.”

Wallach is not in favor of lowering the charter-imposed height limit, as some slow-growth candidates are, at least not citywide. It’s contextual, he said. 

“I like our views, I don’t want to lose our views. But that doesn’t mean you can’t lose any views ever any time. Ninety percent of our homes don’t have a view of the Flatirons. People are driving cars; they’re not driving cars like this (looking up); they’re driving cars like this (looking at the road). We go to the views.”

“Losing a view on 30th Street … is not the end of the world.”

Neighborhood input on development: Neighbors shouldn’t be “given a veto” over projects, Wallach said, but they should have a seat at the table to guide the final outcome. The city’s engagement process is “structurally flawed.”

“Part of it is a function of normal behavior of people,” he said. “They just don’t focus in until things are closer to decision.”

But he is also critical of the city, which he feels engages far too few people. How, exactly, more people can be engaged, he doesn’t know, simply saying there are “a few good strategies.”

Author’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that Wallach toured Vista Village with residents and that the city is no longer planning to pay for improvements to public amenities at the site of a proposed hotel on University Hill. The article may be updated further with additional or clarifying information.

— Shay Castle, boulderbeatnews@gmail.com, @shayshinecastle. Edited by Deanna Hardies.

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4 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I can’t see any real logic in Mr. Wallach’s position on the Muni and the budget. He got the evaluation of the muni correct in the past and somehow forgot, or missed, the financial deceit of the muni and its impact on the budget now and the orders of magnitude increase in the future. http://tinyurl.com/BoulderMuni provides 70+ YouTube videos of presentations to City Council that list faster, smarter, and cheaper ways to achieve our 2030 commitment without adding $500 + million in dept to the City budget. He has buried his head in the sand and will not get my vote. I wish him well and I wish him discernment. I can only guess that he is searching for votes more than he pursues the truth.

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